Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

What a pair of debuts.

This film noir classic was the first screen credit for director John Huston and actor Sydney Greenstreet. The Maltese Falcon (1941)pushed actor Humphrey Bogart into superstardom for the next 16 years until his death in 1957.

Yet for all of this, plus a challenging plot that needs to be jotted down to be followed, The Maltese Falcon didn't win a single Oscar. Yes, Huston's first effort earned three nods (supporting role for Greenstreet, screenplay for Huston and best picture). But The Maltese Falcon didn't win a single Academy Award. Oh well, Citizen Kane lost out to How Green Was My Valley for best picture. How many Oscars did James Cameron's Titanic win again? Life ain't fair.

How best to simplify this film's story? Here goes. Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) wants help from private eye Samuel Spade (Humphrey Bogart). She fears her sister's safety is in jeapordy because of the man she is with. A generous retainer puts Spade and his partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) on the job.

The gumshoes soon learn O'Shaughnessy is more than liberal with the truth. Archer gets knocked off and Spade finds himself up to his eyeballs in a cat and mouse game with O'Shaughnessy, Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) and Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) for possession of The Maltese Falcon. This trio all wants to get its hands on the priceless statue laden with rare gems. Gutman has one of his hoods, Wilmer Cook (Elisha Cook), unsuccessfully track and intimidate Spade. "The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter," Spade spits out at one point.

Spade falls for O'Shaughnessy, but knows she keeps conning him.

Cairo is the bumbler of the bunch, a hood who keeps getting outclassed by Spade. "Look what you did to my shirt," he tells Spade after he gets roughed up. Lorre gets the few funny lines in this film. "Our private conversations have not been such that I'm anxious to continue them," Cairo tells Spade after the private eye suggests they meet one-on-one.

Gutman - love the name, Greenstreet is a very large man - is the most civil of the bunch. But his years-long determination to find the falcon means he's OK with a little violence to get his prize. Spade has to match wits with all these characters while police suggest he murdered Archer because of his affair with his wife, Ida (Gladys George). For such a smart guy, Spade's choice in women looks a little iffy. Even Ida wonders if her lover has blood has on his hands. She asks him, "Sam, did you kill him?," shortly after her hubby's demise.

The Maltese Falcon reminds me of Key Largo , reviewed on this site last week. In both films, Bogart's characters need to be as sharp mentally to watch wits with his foes. He'll use violence if necessary, but his words and tactics are effective weapons too.

Great film. Great cast. Someday I even might be able to follow the plot without a scratch pad. Watch this film.

RATING: 9/10

FUN FACTS: Greenstreet's screen time was brief. He appeared in 25 productions between 1941 and 1949 including another Hollywood classic, Casablanca.

Ward Bond, a detective in The Maltese Falcon, was Bert in It's a Wonderful Life

Barton MacLane, another policeman in The Maltese Falcon, was Gen. Peterson in television's I Dream of Jeannie.

Some interesting facts about The Maltese Falcon from A.M. Sperber and Eric Lax's Bogart A.M. Sperber and Eric Lax:

1. Geraldine Fitzgerald was the studio's first choice to play O'Shaughnessy. Astor was second choice. Fitzgerald wasn't interested because it was Huston's first film.

2. Warner Brothers had to make all of Greenstreet's fashions. He weighed 357 pounds.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Key Largo (1948)

The gangsters in this film have no trouble threatening people, roughing them up or shooting them.

But they're the cowards when Mother Nature lashes out with a violent storm. After all, how do you shoot the wind?

Former gangster kingpin Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson) wants to rule the roost again in America. "Nobody was as big as Rocco," he boasts. "I'll be big again." Rocco has slipped into Key Largo, Florida by boat with a whack of counterfeit bills. He's brought his goons along including Curly (Thomas Gomez) and the menacing Toots (Harry Lewis).

The thugs have set up shop in a family-owned hotel owned by James Temple (Lionel Barrymore) with the assistance of his daughter-in-law Nora (Lauren Bacall). Her husband was killed during the Second World War. His commanding officer, Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart), travels by bus to visit. Mr. Temple wants to know about his son George's last hours. McCloud is drifting, with no firm roots.

There's trouble before McCloud even arrives at the inn. His bus is stopped by police. They're looking for two escaped prisoners likely headed back to Key Largo. "They always head for home," the bus driver advises.

Here's where director John Huston has a little more fun.

The local force is clueless when it comes to a major criminal - Rocco - in their midst, staying instead focused on two men whose crime was likely not a serious one. At one point, Sheriff Ben Wade takes a look at Rocco and suggests he looks familiar. But he doesn't remember the man he's standing behind is a serious felon.

McCloud walks into trouble. Rocco and his crew have taken over the hotel. The gangster's old girlfriend, Gaye (Claire Trevor), has turned into an alcoholic in the years that he has lived in Cuba. This woman badly needs a drink, constantly.

McCloud says he's not eager to clash with Rocco ("I fight nobody's battles but my own."), but he keeps matching wits with him in an effort to keep the others alive. Nora has caught his eye too. Everybody is forced to stay inside the inn while a violent storm rages. Rocco wants McCloud to pilot a boat back to Cuba. Certain death awaits if he accepts the assignment.

Fine performances carry this film. Key Largo (Keepcase) could have offered Lewis his finest role. Lewis, who just died on June 9, 2013, is a well-dressed hood with a menacing presence. Gomez's Curly isn't as well-built as Toots, but there's an air of menace around him too. And, how about Robinson? He's nice and cool, complete with a fan nearby, when we first meet him. But this killer works up a sweat when the lights start dimming and strong winds blow drinking glasses to the ground. He's intrigued by McCloud and how this veteran can match wits with him, the brains of the counterfeit money deal.

Trevor won an Oscar for her portrayal of Rocco's washed-up lover. The booze has dulled her good looks and killed the beautiful voice Rocco once enjoyed hearing sing. "You wouldn't know it was the same dame," Rocco notes. He doesn't beat her, but his words cut deep.

Huston and Bogart made several films together including the director's debut, The Maltese Falcon, in 1941 and The Treasure of the Sierre Madre.

Key Largo offers viewers a strong cast, great dialogue and a story that keeps you watching.

RATING: 8/10

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Dinner at Eight (1933)

Wait a minute, haven't I seen this movie before?

Well, not quite. But Dinner at Eight (1933) could remind viewers of Grand Hotel in several ways.

First off, several actors from Grand Hotel are back for Dinner at Eight. John Barrymore's Larry Renault is a washed-up actor who hasn't succeeded making the transition from silent films to the talkies. His best asset, his looks, is on the downside.

In Grand Hotel, Barrymore was The Baron, a thief posing as a supposedly suave aristocrat to pinch Marlene Dietrich's pearls. Oh, he also needed money badly or risked being roughed up, if not killed, by his criminal colleagues.

Lionel Barrymore was Kringelein in Grand Hotel, a bookkeeper for a big businessman who is dying and wants to live out his last days blowing his estate in fine living. Here, he's Oliver Jordan, an owner of a shipping business who finds tough times running his empire during the Great Depression. Plus, someone is buying up his company's stock with the goal of pushing him out as owner. It doesn't help that out flame Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler) wants to sell her shares in Jordan's company because she's starting to be squeezed for cash.

That brings us to Wallace Beery. He was Preysing in Grand Hotel, the businessman desperate to make a deal while finding time for some monkey business with Joan Crawford's stenographer. In Dinner at Eight, his character Dan Packard is a businessman eager to clinch deals and make connections in Washington. He's married a fine-looking, but tough talking, piece of eye candy in Kitty (Jean Harlow). She wants to play doctor with physician Wayne Talbot (Edmund Lowe).

So, three of Grand Hotel's principal cast are back for Dinner at Eight.

Well, how about the plot?

Grand Hotel was pretty much set at a swank German hotel.

Here, all the action is tied to a dinner party Jordan's wife Millicent (Billie Burke) wants to host to welcome a couple from England's high society.

Dinner at Eight runs nearly two hours, but all its attention centres on preparations leading up to the bash.

What can give viewers some indigestion is trying to figure out what type of movie Dinner at Eight is supposed to be. Its mood varies widely depending on the subplot. Larry Renault keeps pounding back booze with the knowledge the good times are long gone. No laughs there. The Packards start off looking like a couple fighting for laughs, but the unhappiness in their relationship gets fleshed out as the movie continues. This marriage is in rough shape. Even the maid sees a chance to cash in on their discord.

Millicent's efforts to organize her party are on the light side. There's problems in the kitchen. Her servants are at each other's throats. Meanwhile, hubby Oliver is dealing with a serious illness that could drop his anchor for good.

Karen Morley appears briefly as Talbot's wife, Lucy. She knows all about his dalliances with patients, but continues to stand by him. Again, the heaviness of wife confronting husband seems strange in a film that includes pratfalls on stairs.

Watch for some fine support work from Louise Closser Hale and Grant Mitchell. They're relatives of Millicent's who are pressed into service when some dinner party invitees can't attend. Mitchell's Ed Loomis wold rather be at the movies watching a Great Garbo film. There's another tie to Grand Hotel.

Great cast. Interesting storylines. But audiences might be confused about what type of movie they're watching. Comedy? Drama? Melodrama?

RATING: 8/10

MORBID AND FUN FACTS: Director George Cukor also helmed the very fine The Philadelphia Story .

Marie Dressler died in 1934. She was 65. Louise Closser Hale would only earn one more credit, Duck Soup , before her death in 1933 at age 60.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Grand Hotel (1932)

Check out this film.

Grand Hotel won an Oscar for best picture in 1933. It's still worth reserving some time to watch more than 80 years after its initial release.

What a cast. There's a long line of Hollywood greats in this drama from director Edward Goulding (Dark Victory).

Greta Garbo only made 32 films in her short career. Just eight more came after this. Within 10 years her last film was in the can and she became a recluse. John Barrymore, grandfather of Drew Barrymore (ET) would be dead a decade later because of his alcoholism. Wow. Joan Crawford looks great as a stenographer who also acts an escort to well-heeled businessmen.

A series of telephone calls helps set up the film's various story lines at a posh German hotel. General Director Preysing (Wallace Beery) is under the gun to close a business deal. He's married. He has a family. He's ready to act on his attractions to Flaemmchen, Crawford's character during a business trip to England. Preysing is also willing to sacrifice his ethics to make sure said deal happens.

Garbo's Grusinskaya either suffers from an acute case of stage fright or desperately needs the adulation of a packed house to keep dancing. "Their applause did not come," she laments after a performance. The Baron (John Barrymore) is, in fact, a criminal out to get Grusinskaya's pricey string of pearls. The conman who suggests his dog is the only thing he loves manages to get swept away with Grusinskaya when he gets caught in her suite after pinching her pearls. But, with no pearls, his partner-in-crime Morgan Wallace suggests death will come quick. Garbo strikes me as a little over-the-top, not to mention hard to understand at some points. Audiences do get to hear her say, "I want to be alone."

Otto Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore, John's brother) is dying from some terminal disease. He wants to spend his last days in luxury. The Grand Hotel is where he'll die and spend what money he has saved. "I'm going to live," he vows, and takes action when he's given a dinky room after checking in. But the Grand Hotel offers Kringelein numerous ways to rejuvenate his life. He makes a killing gambling. New friendships are established. He gets to cut a rug with Flaemmchen. By golly, he just happens to be a bookkeeper at Preysing's factory. Hmmm. It's three years into the Great Depression and an industry titan is ridiculed for his behaviour. Coincidence?

The hotel's guests don't have all the fun. There's a small nod to the staff with some neat shots of the switchboard operators and a porter, Serf (Jean Hersholt), dealing with a family crisis.

Goulding keeps this film moving from story to story. There's at least one very good laugh included in all this drama that results in death and scandal. A steady stream of classical music is a bit much, but it sets the mood of high society.

Great film. Great cast. See it.

RATING: 8/10

FUN FACTS: Lionel Barrymore was Mr. Potter in It's a Wonderful Life. Potter is not quite so endearing as Kringelein.